Monthly Archives: February 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Review

Confession time: I love magic.

I love books about magic, films about magic, and even some actual magicians.

There are those in my line of work who would say I shouldn’t.  And some of their concerns are right on.  I fully believe that there is a world higher than the natural one–a supernatural world.  I believe it, in part, because I have experienced it in action, undeniably.  And there can be an unhealthy fascination with aspects of it.  It does have a dark side.

But nonetheless, I have always loved stuff about magic.  That could be fictional magicians or wizards doing spells that couldn’t possibly exist, or it could be actual magicians, performing sleight-of-hand or mental manipulation tricks.  Think of both Harry Potter and The Illusionist.

As a kid, I used to practice magic tricks, checking this one book out from the library over and over.  Had my own magic set.  My parents took me to see magicians from time to time.  I’ve always loved it.

Not a big fan of the modern illusionist.  I find them a bit creepy and flashy in ways magicians shouldn’t be.  David Blaine does nothing for me and I give him zero attention.  I much prefer the classic showman style, who is both classy and witty in his presentation.  Think Ricky Jay.  Steve Cohen in NYC.  Those are my kind of magicians.

I don’t know what draws me.  Maybe it’s the fact that magicians in stories are usually in command of their worlds in ways others around them aren’t.  Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike most modern fantasy, which seems both stuck in a rut and ridiculously unreal, stories about magic bring the supernatural and the natural world we experience daily together.  Kind of like I would like my life to do.

Anyway.  Been on a bit of a magic kick lately in my reading.  Rereading the Harry Potter novels.  Read The Magicians, a novel on some top ten lists from 2009.  (Despicable main character, intense novel, needlessly trashy, don’t recommend it.)  Am wanting to reread Carter Beats the Devil.

And I just finished tackling Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The 780 page epic is so well-constructed, so diverse, and just so good that I can’t recommend any striving novelist read it, as it will make you just want to give up.

Imagine, if you will, The Prestige as co-written by Jane Austen & Charles Dickens being fed ideas by Neil Gaiman.  That’s this book.

I will try to summarize: the book is written in that 19th century British tone, a pastiche of Austen, Dickens, and probably some others.  The story takes place in the early 1800s in an England in which the art of magic was once widely practiced but has faded into mere history and theory since the disappearance of John Uskglass, the greatest magician in English history.  Groups of stodgy old men gather in halls to discuss magic, and call themselves theoretical magicians, focusing on its history and theory.

This all changes dramatically by the appearance of a practical magician, Mr. Gilbert Norrell, who promises to demonstrate that magic is real if the theoretical magicians all promise to give up their hobby.  They do, skeptical of Norrell, and then Norrell causes all the statues in York Cathedral to come to life and speak.

Norrell soon moves to London with the goal of restoring the place of English magic as a gentleman’s pursuit.  The problem is that Norrell is a very secretive and, well, boring person, and his intentions towards magic are both dull and controlling.  He wants to restore English magic on his terms alone, and those terms include the seemingly contradictory idea that he be the only magician.  No one else is good enough.

The demands of London society soon dictate that he prove himself by performing an actual task of magic.  When a local politician’s new wife suddenly dies, Norrell is suddenly called upon to provide this proof by raising her from the dead.  Norrell does so by calling on the help of a faerie, historically known as the deceptive and reluctant assistants to magicians.  Norrell himself speaks out against the use of faeries and tells no one of this incident in which he talks the faerie into raising the Lady Pole.  The deal they strike states that Lady Pole will live till 75 but that the faerie will own her for half her life.  Norrell is tricked; the faerie means he will own Lady Pole at night, and every night the Lady is forced into faerie land where she must dance the night away.

Soon we meet Jonathan Strange, who in character is the opposite of Norrell.  Whereas Norrell is controlling and reluctant, Strange is impulsive but charismatic.  During the course of the novel, Strange becomes the main protagonist, at first becoming Norrell’s tutor and later adversary.  Strange cannot help but do magic, giving in more and more into temptations to try stronger and stronger magic.  He is hired by the government to help Wellington fight Napoleon.  He attempts to bring sanity to the mad King of England.

Their main disagreement comes down to their feelings about John Uskglass, the Raven King and greatest magician ever.  Norrell hopes to wipe his influence out of modern magic; Strange feels that if you do that, you will wipe magic out altogether.  The third section of the novel concerns this mysterious figure.

And so on.  If I were to spoil any more here, it would give away many of the delights of the plot’s many twists and turns.  So instead of doing that, I’ll give you a handful of reasons I loved this book, and one or two critiques:

1. The Story–Even 30 pages or so from the end, I had no idea how this novel would end.  Clarke weaves together many strands and characters into a great finale, and I love a book that is unpredictable.

2. The prose–Clarke is a genius at shifting moods.  Some sections feel fascinatingly expository, including the many footnotes referring to magical tomes that exist only in the universe of the book.  Others are dark and scary.  Others have tremendous wit.  One chapter might feel tremendously tense or ominous, the next like something out of a comedy of manners.  Her use of description is spare in needed places and rich in others.  The shifting of moods is extremely effective throughout the book, adding to the difficulty in predicting exactly where the piece will land.

3. The Characters–I love both of the main characters in this book.  Norrell continually made me laugh by his stubbornness, and I saw myself in Strange’s impulsiveness.  But the side characters also fascinate: Stephen Black, the servant the faerie becomes enamored with; Vinculus, the mysterious prophet-magician; Drawlight and Childermass, assistants to Norrell who meet wildly different ends, and many others.

My only complaint, I’d say–and this is one echoed by others–is that the first 300 pages are a bit slow.  “300 pages” and “slow” sounds like a worse combination than it really was, and I understand why she made some of the choices she makes in those opening 300 pages.  It does seem to me, however, that this could have been trimmed a bit.  I had heard about the opening before I read the book, and decided to persevere through it, and I’m glad I did.  Somewhere around the 300 mark, I was really getting sucked in, and I read the last 500 pages at least twice as fast as I did the first 300.

To close: it’s a good book.  If magic and the supernatural don’t bother you, you should give it a shot.  Let me know what you think.